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Pushkin and His English Translators

To me the publication of Yarmolinsky’s introduction and Babette Deutsch’s translations of Pushkin, on the occasion of his centenary, is a calamity both in literature and in our cultural relations with Russia. The book is not a labor of love. Neither Yarmolinsky nor Babette Deutsch regards Pushkin as a great poet, nor regards him with personal affection, nor even—to judge by the introduction—with esteem. I never read a more priggishly contemptuous essay than the one with which Yarmolinsky introduces this great poet and great man to the American public. Pushkin’s poetry, he says to begin with, “is lacking in imagery and is innocent of intellection”—a statement I can only set down to differences of opinion as to the nature of imagery and intellect that practically place Mr. Yarmolinsky and Pushkin in different biological species.

“Ruslan and Ludmila,” the delightful fairy tale that charmed the whole Slavic world, that gave birth to a new poetic era and lifted Pushkin into everlasting fame, Yarmolinsky tosses into the wastebasket as “a puerile performance.”

Of Pushkin’s heartspoken lyrics to liberty, his rebellion against autocracy, his tender-hearted hatred of serfdom, which kept him in exile or under police surveillance practically throughout his life, Yarmolinsky can make only such remarks as these: “To an extent, his puerile bravado, his impudent escapades, his sartorial extravagances, his cynicism, were now a protest against the constituted authorities, of whom he felt himself to be the victim”—“There was much in Pushkin’s situation to feed a romantic malaise and a romantic revolt against the conventions of society”—“He was not a rebel by nature but by force of circumstance.”

As to Pushkin’s sensitivity to women and his high, gay frankness about it, Yarmolinsky talks with the self-righteous horror of a Y.M.C.A. secretary on a bender at a soda-fountain. With exciting allusions to sexual “precocity,” to “early excesses,” “dire consequences to his health,” “the disorderly irresponsible life of a gay bachelor,” “champagne dinners,” “dissipated habits,” etc., he conveys the impression that this superb and monumentally productive character had no self-discipline and spent his life as a wastrel. When you reflect that Alexander Pushkin created a literary language, established a national literature, wrote a bookshelf full of narrative poems, dramatic poems, political poems, prose tales, dramas, histories and a novel in verse, besides writing lyrics of such intense perfection as to place his name with those who achieved immortality by doing nothing else—when you reflect that all this was achieved in a decadent society, in the face of governmental persecution and personal misfortune, and between the ages of twenty and thirty-eight, you wonder what monumental production Avrahm Yarmolinsky has under his placid desk down there at the Public Library to justify his sneers at Pushkin’s robust taste for pleasure.

All the clichés of the sex bigot are here. “He continued to fall in love with all the pretty women in sight.”—“He ran after women as before.” What a measureless insult to women in that phrase! And what a measureless insult to Pushkin to use that phrase even after the poet, heart-torn and desperate, was seeking in the cheap and fatuous society surrounding him for a true life-mate!

“He ran after women as before, but now with the notion of matrimony in the back of his head…” I do not know what inward grudge Mr. Yarmolinsky bears to the poets best loved by his countrymen. He described Lermontov, in prefacing some translations of mine in the “Anthology of World Poetry,” as a “brilliant rake and egotistical bully”—a perfectly wanton insult that I went down and begged the publisher to remove in future editions of the book. Mr. Yarmolinsky seems to have constantly in mind some superior person who has attained such heights of saintliness and self-command that, by comparison with him, almost all fallible and wayward mortals, especially if they happen to enjoy a little pleasure, seem substantially sunk into the gutter.

If this sneering attack on Pushkin’s character were followed by Pushkin’s poetry, it would matter little. For Pushkin’s humor and friendliness, his exquisite self-poise, his abounding tenderness toward his characters and toward his readers, his daring and his grace, his impetuous richness and yet presiding restraint, his absolute candor and absolute mastery of the instrument of speech, would win all sensitive readers, just as he won all sensitive men and women in his lifetime, to his side. For my part, I have not a doubt that in the judgment of a posterity which reckons with Russian, Pushkin will rank with the greatest poets of the world. In his best lyrics he is not inferior to Horace, whom more than any other he resembles there; and in his tales he is not inferior to Chaucer, whom he also resembles. He is to me only a little like Byron, except in the possession of irresistible humor and the bold sexual candor that goes with it. And his humor is so much more delicate than Byron’s, so much more springlike and inevitable and gracefully woven in with his song, that the comparison is all to his credit. He is, in fact, supreme in what you might call lyric humor. He is supreme in an art almost peculiar to him—that of giving emotional value, and therewith a veritably classic elegance, to the phrases of ordinary, almost slangy talk. He is, in my opinion, the supreme master of rhyme. With Horace, he is supreme in conveying what I call the liquid essence of friendship. And with all this, and above it all, he has attained lyric perfection. He has conveyed in many poems that sense of the word and the feeling’s being, like the wind and the force that moves it, breathlessly and inexplicably one, which places him beside Sappho and Catullus, Villon and Robert Burns.

Nothing whatever of these qualities, practically nothing distinctive of Pushkin, is to be found in the poetry in this book—either in the main body of it by Babette Deutsch, or in the additional pieces by Alfred Hayes, Oliver Elton and others. His qualities being what they are, it should be obvious at once that Babette Deutsch is the last poet in the world to translate Pushkin, even if she were at home in the Russian language. She has no humor; she has, correspondingly, no taste for the exaltation of the colloquial. She has no taste for what I mean by the liquid essence of friendship, for that is a wholly infidel and pagan substance. She has no tolerance of gay sexuality and gay candor about it, being upon this theme as self-righteously straitlaced as her husband. She shows in her own poetry not even an aspiration toward the airlike purity of Sappho and Catullus. She belongs—with all her poetic merits, which I hereby recognize—to a different breed. And as for rhyme—if she were herself the world’s mistress of it, she could make nothing but a botch of her chief effort, “Evgeni Onegin.” For Pushkin’s rhyme-scheme in this poem is complex, and to translate a complex rhyme-scheme so that it will have grace and naturalness in another tongue, is impossible. The world is simply not so full of lucky coincidences that such an art can exist.

The result is that instead of hearing Pushkin speak for himself in his masterpiece after Yarmolinsky gets through sneering at him, we hear the laborious and painfully poetical attempt to find enough English rhymes having vaguely to do with the subject Pushkin is talking about in each stanza, so that the reader may have the exalted pleasure of knowing that throughout the whole poem, although everything else is destroyed, the rhyme scheme is the same. The reader may have even the satisfaction of knowing that, at whatever cost to the English idiom, feminine endings have been found in English wherever they occur in Russian, although because of inflections and conjugations a feminine ending in Russian is as different from what it is in English as a bear is from a beauty parlor.

Pushkin says in Stanza 40, Chapter III, of “Evgeni Onegin”:

But our summer north is a caricature

Of winter south, flashes

And is gone: this is well known.

Although we don’t like to admit it.

Miss Deutsch translates:

Our northern summer, swiftly flying,

Is southern winter’s travesty;

And even as we are denying

Its passage, it has ceased to be.

In the next stanza a wolf with a she-wolf has come out on the road in the autumn cold:

Smelling him, the road horse snorts—

And the prudent traveler dashes

Full speed up the hill.

Miss Deutsch, mistaking the word dorozhny for drozhaschy, has the horse “quiver” instead of merely belonging to the road:

The horse who scents him snorts and quivers.

The traveler observes and shivers

And dashes uphill and is gone.

It doesn’t matter so much about the mistake. It is Miss Deutsch’s wish for all this quivering and shivering which disqualifies her as a translator of Pushkin. I do not know how much she shares of her husband’s introductory opinions, but the statement that Pushkin’s poetry lacks imagery could be made only by a person of crudely immature taste. Pushkin, after Tatiana has confessed her love for Onegin and been advised by him to forget it, says:

What were the consequences of the interview?

Alas, it is not hard to guess!

The mad sufferings of love did not cease to

Agitate her young soul, thirsty of grief.

No—poor Tatiana burns still more with

Uncontrollable passion; sleep flies her bed;

Health, the bloom and sweetness of life,

The smile, the maiden restfulness,

All are vanished like an empty sound.

And darling Tanya’s youth is going out,

Just as the day, when hardly born,

Puts on the shadow of a storm…

Miss Deutsch translates:

What of the tryst, then, so ill fated?

Alas, it is not hard to guess!

The pains of love still agitated

The soul so shy of happiness;

The promise of her spring was blighted,

But love grew greater unrequited;

She could but peak and pine and weep,

And night would find her far from sleep.

Lost like a muted sound and vanished,

Her virgin calm is of the past;

Poor Tanya’s youth is fading fast,

And health and hope and joy are banished:

Thus darkly drives the storm that shrouds

The brightest dawn in sullen clouds.

In some of the lyrics, where she has not concentrated on the Chinese puzzle of translating rhyme-schemes, the calamity is less awful than this. In certain stanzas she even creates a poetic eloquence of her own—notably in “The Prophet,” where Pushkin, basing himself on Isaiah, draws a little close to Babette Deutsch’s natural orbit. Even here, however, the eloquence is alien. And in most of the lyrics Miss Deutsch seems actually to be trying to improve Pushkin along lines of her own. The famous poem, “Winter Evening,” for instance, in which Pushkin addresses the old nurse who shares with him his lonely exile in Mikhailovskoe, begins so simply and with a construction so natural in English, that the translation, if you care for Pushkin, is almost inevitable:

The storm with dark the heaven covers,

Spinning snowy whirlwinds wild,

Now like a beast in fury howling,

And now crying like a child.

Only the words wild and in fury need be added to make rhyme and rhythm; otherwise the translation is literal. But Miss Deutsch abandons that trim silver-wire-like grammatical structure, which is of Pushkin’s essence, and turns the verse into a small, irregular pile of things, storms, tempests, gales—three names for the subject of Pushkin’s verb!—patterns, clouds, wailings, etc.:

Storm-clouds dim the sky; the tempest

Weaves the snow in patterns wild;

Like a beast the gale is howling,

And now wailing like a child.

Her translation of the lines:

Chto zhe ti, moia starushka

Priumolka u okna?

Nanny, sitting at the window.

Can’t you give me just a word?

is to me as true to the mood of the original as though one were to translate “Ave atque vale”: “Hello, baby, and goodbye!” The poem is as important, too, in a world view of literature as that of Catullus—as choking in its emotion, as elevating in its perfection and of greater social significance. Almost all translations are bad, and for a very simple reason—namely, that they are made by ordinary people, and ordinary people are conventional. Adrift on a sea of unfamiliar impressions they grab for the usual phrase as a drowning man grabs for a well tested life-preserver properly stamped “For Adults.” Thus, wherever an eminent writer has found in his own tongue an unusual expression—and he is eminent only because he finds them—the translator, confusing its native unusualness with its foreignness to him, seeks frantically through the awesome jungle of his own language for a usual expression with which to match it. And if he finds one absolutely commonplace, he cries Eureka! and sets it down upon his page in triumph. That is the simple reason why almost all translations are bad. And it can be illustrated from any and all of the translations in this book. In “Boris Godunov,” for instance, Vorotynsky says: “Of course, the blood of an innocent baby will prevent his ascending the throne.” Shuisky answers: “He’ll stride over it; Boris is not so timid.” Instead of “he’ll stride over it,” which he apparently takes for a customary Russian way of dealing with baby’s blood, the translator says: “He’ll not be balked,” which is indeed customary enough, and colorless enough, in English. Such a translation should be thrown out of the window without more ado.

A still worse fault in most translations, and especially of Pushkin, arises from the desperate concern of the translator to be literary. Pushkin is characterized, not only as an individual genius, but as an event in the history of language, by his lifting into literature the simple and straight talk of a nation of untutored and “barbarous” Slavs—or better, perhaps, lifting literature up to that talk. Thus, the crime of literariousness is a double treason against Pushkin. It too can be illustrated from every translation, and practically every page, of this book.

In “Boris Godunov,” Pushkin writes:

Some time, an industrious monk

Will find my fervent, nameless work.

His translator:

A day will come when some laborious monk

Will bring to light my zealous, nameless toil.

“A day will come,” “bring to light” and “toil”—three expressions in two lines born of the pure desire to be literary! Constance Garnett’s translations are so afflicted with literariousness that they have falsified our whole impression of Russian fiction for three generations. She contributes only one poem to this book:

Thou shalt not, poet, prize the people’s love.

The noise of their applause will quickly die;

Thou shalt not hear the judgment of the fool

And chilling laughter from the multitude…

Art thou content? Then leave the herd to howl;

Leave them to spit upon thine altar fires

And on the dancing incense of thy shrine.

Pushkin says:

Poet! Don’t prize the people’s love.

Their momentary noisy praise will pass.

Listen to the fool’s judgment and the laugh of the cold crowd.

But you stay hard and calm and sullen…

Are you satisfied? Then let the crowd scold

And spit upon the altar where your fire burns,

And shake your tripod in their childish zest.

The only poems in this book that can be read with any satisfaction by one who has read Pushkin, are those of A.F.B. Clark. They, too, have been considerably exalted upwards, and adorned with enough “forsooths” and “e’er since the hour’s” and such like polished relics to remove us a good way from Pushkin, but they are not treasons to his style. One reason for this is that they are in blank verse, and the writer does not continually find himself doing something that cannot be well done. A man moved to translate rhymed poems in rhyme ought to be ready, and ought to be in a position, to throw away any poem with which he has bad luck. The possibility of a good rhymed translation, where it exists, is good luck, and where it does not exist, to insist on making the translation is stupid and stubborn and foolish. From this it follows that the only way to translate long poems with a fixed rhyme scheme, above all an elaborate one, is to abandon the scheme altogether, explaining what it is, and then suggesting it by rhyming a word now and then where this proves naturally possible. It seems to me these statements should be self-evident to anybody who knows the difference between a poem and a cross-word puzzle.

The prose translations in this book are—naturally—better than the poems, although those of Natalie Duddington suffer from all the same faults. Those of T. Keane are written in a swift, simple and flexible English that preserves the grace, if not the unique vigor, of Pushkin’s language. So much in mitigation!

On the other hand, the book is so exquisitely designed and bound by Random House as to delude the reader into thinking it must contain good poetry, and thus increase the calamity of its publication.